Helping Mesothelioma Patients: Pen Is More Powerful than the Knife

Dr. Raja Flores

When it comes to the future of treatment for mesothelioma, I really believe the pen can be more powerful than the knife.

Politicians have the potential to save more patients than thoracic surgeons can.

What do I mean? People are still being exposed to asbestos, the cause of the cancer. There still is no ban of toxic mineral.

We need a ban.

And that would take the pen. We need laws that will protect people from future exposure to asbestos. We need better policy. That will help more people than I can ever help with surgery.

Until the government signs something that says asbestos use is completely banned in the United States, you’re never going to get rid of this problem.

Mesothelioma Is Just Part of the Problem

Mesothelioma is a cancer that is completely preventable.

It was given to us by man. And it’s not just mesothelioma, either.

There are more lung cancer cases linked to asbestos exposure than total mesothelioma cases — by at least a 2-to-1 margin.

And then there are people dying from the progression of asbestosis. They are all horrible diseases.

Every time I see a mesothelioma patient, and they stare me in the eyes, looking to me to save their life, my heart breaks. I know their life could have easily been spared if they never were exposed to that stuff.

What I can do for them is just temporary.

Most people who get surgery, chemotherapy or radiation for mesothelioma are still going to die. Period.

Politicians Can Save More Lives

Politicians can help prevent mesothelioma deaths by passing tougher laws on asbestos use in the United States.

We need to prevent asbestos and asbestos-containing products from coming into the country, whether it’s in crayons, makeup or auto parts.

The politicians can save more lives than the surgeons can. But they are not stepping up to the plate like they should be.

Either they don’t know, or they don’t care.

Republicans and Democrats of the past have failed us when it comes to banning asbestos.

It could be because people already think it’s illegal, and they don’t put enough pressure on the politicians from either side.

We need to turn up the heat on all of them.

Problem Was Ignored for Too Long

Back when asbestos was being used in everything, the companies knew it was a killer, but they were going to suffer financially if they stopped using it. They did their best to stick their heads in the ground.

There is a ton of asbestos already present in all these buildings — legacy asbestos — that is exposing people such as firemen who go into burning buildings or construction workers who renovate older structures.

Not everyone is looking for asbestos, either. They aren’t trying, because if you find it, you have to pay for abatement.

A lot of it just gets swept under the rug.

Many cancers are related to public policy, related to regulation. Unfortunately, money can be put ahead of the well-being of people.

A lot of substances cause cancer, but the politics of cancer is that — if someone’s bottom line is going to be compromised — it’s best to just ignore it.

I see this line of thinking all the time.

But it’s not ignorance. People will lose money once they know they have asbestos in their building and have to abate it. Once property gets labeled as having asbestos, the value goes down.

Ban Helps Next Generation

A ban of asbestos isn’t going to stop mesothelioma by itself.

Countries with bans had to wait 30 or more years before seeing a reduced incidence rate. This is because of the long latency period of the cancer.

But a ban is better than doing nothing. And right now, we’re doing nothing.

We have to do something because the treatments we’re using now are not doing a lot to stop the problem. At least with a ban, we’re doing something that might help our children.

The asbestos out there today needs to be identified better so people know where it is.

What really breaks my heart is hearing about asbestos found in crayons or makeup for kids.

How does that happen? We’ve been recklessly exposing people to asbestos. How does that manifest itself?

Then, 20 or 30 years later, I see patients with mesothelioma who have no idea where they were exposed.

Other people know where it came from, but the innocent bystander has no clue.

A ban of asbestos isn’t the only solution, but it would be a much-needed step in the right direction.

Thoracic Surgeon & Contributing Writer

Dr. Raja Flores is chief of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, specializing in the treatment of mesothelioma. He was named to the Society of Honorary Police Surgeons for his work with first responders in the aftermath of 9/11, recognized for his expertise in treating asbestos-related diseases.

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